Israel in Egypt 2 December 2018 - Review

Handel’s Oratorio ‘Israel in Egypt’ is not often performed these days. It is a challenging, not to say unusual work. The first part which deals with the plagues of Egypt, the flight of the Hebrews and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army is over remarkably quickly. The scenes fly past, almost like something in a dream. The second part dwells rather enthusiastically on the fate of the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea with ‘The Lord’ represented as a rather bloodthirsty deity. “The Lord is a man of War”.

Let us forget about the warlike text however and just think about the music. As usual, Peter Parfitt gave us an amazingly detailed and lavish programme describing the intimate structures of all the music and detailing the various sources from which Handel drew his inspiration – and so much more actually.

As the programme note said, there is no overture or prelude of any sort. We are flung straight into the action with a recitative sung by the tenor soloist, Ronan Busfield, with support from the continuo group, organist David Gerrard and cellist Alison MacDonald. Allow me to go straight on to talking about organist David Gerrard. His playing was so often at the very heart and core of the performance. Especially in the first part of the work he created so many richly coloured scenes and dramatic explosions. There was for instance the section which reads, ‘He sent a thick darkness over all the land’. The deep sonorous rumble from the organ underlined these words to perfection. When ‘He smote all the first born of Egypt’, the crescendo from the organ was wonderfully dramatic. Again and again David added colour and excitement to the complex choruses. The orchestra were good but often it was often the organ which held my attention. David certainly earned his fee on Sunday as far as I was concerned. There were however some marvellous moments from the orchestra as well, for instance the duet for two flutes, Margaret Preston and Kathryn Gammie. Theirs was a moment of sheer loveliness.

Later on in the alto solo, ‘Thou shalt bring them in’ sung beautifully by Phillipa Thomas, the balance of strings, organ and voice was sheer perfection. I was impressed too by the way that Peter Parfitt controlled the brass in the orchestra, especially the trombones. They sounded rich and smooth but never ever over the top.

The soloists were all excellent. I particularly liked soprano Elinor Rolfe Johnson, lovely light, clear singing both in her very attractive duet with alto Phillipa Thomas ‘The Lord is my strength’ and her solo aria ‘Thou didst blow with the wind’. The oboes supported her beautifully here too. Phillipa had a fine duet with the tenor ‘Thou in Thy mercy’ where the strings and organ were particularly well balanced.

Another high point of the whole performance was the duet between tenor and bass Ronan Busfield and James Williams, ‘The Lord is a man of war’ which had a fine orchestral introduction.

I have left the best till last. This was the singing of all the members of the Bach Choir themselves. I should actually say the two Bach Choirs because that is what in so many cases throughout the work there was, although not in the fast and florid music of the opening chorus, ‘I will sing unto the Lord’. It started almost gently but along with the organ, blossomed into a full colour chorus.

I was impressed by Peter Parfitt’s control of his massive forces in the first part of the work. With its thoroughly Handelian choral writing to which were added fascinating touches of graphic pictorial display as in, ‘there came all manner of flies and lice’ I was reminded of some of the Hollywood films depicting these scenes. I suddenly thought of Peter Parfitt standing before his orchestra and chorus as the Cecil B. DeMille of this colourful music.

For the choir, this work was a big, big sing. They were on, almost all the time, but they did not seem to tire at all. But then, the Bach Choir never do. So well done in bringing this very unusual work to the Aberdeen audience with its many moments of great beauty as well as colour and sheer choral excitement.

Alan Cooper